Reading through the Dog Days

Nora Ephron at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and David Shankbone.

August began with BlogHer, and I lost a week of reading due to the confluence of conference-travel-sightseeing-playgoing in New York City. Thank goodness for novella-length books from several great writers – they saved the month yet again and got me through the dog days of reading.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of August’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I purchased the first two books reviewed here, borrowed the second two from my local library, and received the fifth as a free review copy from the publisher. The Brzezinski and Updike books are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

August

5 down, 14 to go!

REVIEWS

Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth by Mika Brzezinski
Katie Couric recommended this book to me (me and 4,999 others, during her keynote at BlogHer ’12…but, c’mon, how often do you get to start a sentence like that?). It’s been an instructive and depressing read.

Depressing because women still earn less than men, even when they have the same skills and perform the same job at the same level. We’re still underrepresented in the boardroom, among CEOs and other leadership positions, and in technology and science careers where there is greater earning potential. Worse, research suggests that human resources professionals and MBA students, when presented with the exact same resume, consistently rank a job applicant as less experienced and skilled when a women’s name, instead of a man’s, appears at the top.

If this sounds overly familiar to you, it is. Researchers who study the world of work have described these biases since the middle of the last century.

What’s new here is that Brzezinski frames discussion of the gender wage gap, valuing your skills, and salary-negotiation tactics with her own story. It’s one that may come as a surprise to anyone who looks at television as a glamorous, high-paid industry.

Brzezinski is cohost of “Morning Joe,” an MSNBC anchor and author. Right off the bat, she tells you she’s made mistakes in her salary negotiations – and they’ve set back her earning potential over the long run of her career.

She describes being so grateful to have a job after a lengthy period of unemployment that she accepted what was offered and didn’t ask for what she needed to support her family. Doing so led her to a point where, while her morning show was exceeding all expectations in terms of ratings and pulling in plenty of ad dollars for MSNBC, she was struggling with an overdrawn checking account every month.

Brzezinski is clear that her problems stemmed from not understanding the value of her worth to the network. She gives vivid descriptions of several failed attempts to renegotiate her contract, where she went wrong and why.

“What makes a persuasive argument are solid facts and figures about what you’ve done and what other people, with the same skills and experience and accomplishments, are making for the same job,” she notes. “Let me say it again: You are not prepared unless you know the market value of your contributions.”

With the advent of the Internet, this information is no longer a deep, dark secret, and Brzezinski discusses how women can find out that information and put it to work in negotiating their worth.

Through interviews with experts, like Suze Orman, Jack Welch, White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, Tina Brown, Donald Trump, Nora Ephron, and others, she presents a variety of viewpoints on the current state of women in the workplace – they don’t all agree with each other, which is refreshing.

Brzezinski dares to address the uncomfortable topic of whether women support each other enough at work, offers some nuanced advice to women who want career and family, and explains the important difference between mentors and support networks.

“Encouraging women to take control of their own destinies is very much at the heart of this book,” she writes. And this book is a great place to start understanding the knowledge and behaviors required to steer your own ship.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
It’s probably a good thing we’re assigned books like this in high school.

Stability – via Henry Ford’s “principle of mass production at last applied to biology” – is the goal of the society Huxley satirizes. Leaving behind the sticky complications of love, marriage and “viviparous reproduction,” these Brave New clones remain forever youthful, productive at work, dedicated to consumerism, and continuously blissful, thanks to the Prozac-like soma.

Re-reading Huxley, it doesn’t surprise me that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has had a stronger cultural influence. We’d read the two books back-to-back in my high school English class, and they’d stood, in my mind, as equals. Now, I don’t get what all the fuss was about.

Frankly, this doesn’t work as a novel. Even alongside the clumsy attempts at world-building that can be the hallmark of dystopias, this is clunky stuff.

There’s the tedious opening, done as a guided tour of the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. Always a bad sign when an author doesn’t recognize that the inhabitants of his world already know this stuff and, if you design a world around mind control, you probably don’t show off your conditioning process to the people being oppressed.

There’s the heavy-handed quoting of Shakespeare (the title, my 15-year-old’s scrawl informs me, is lifted from “The Tempest,” wherein the word “brave” means “wondrous” as opposed to “courageous”) – except now I see that the whole Prospero-Miranda-Caliban reference (nor the “Romeo and Juliet” allusion that’s also thrown in) doesn’t translate.

There’s the choice to remain a distant, omniscient author, jumping around from one character’s head to the next. This device is perhaps necessary because the supposed protagonist, Bernard Marx, is such a weasel – hardly brave-courageous, he’s disloyal to his friends and serves only his ego. Even the author doesn’t introduce Bernard till Chapter 3, and then halfway through the book, he’s usurped as protagonist by the Savage, discovered among the Native American reservations, which have been crammed into the state of New Mexico, along with the few remaining practitioners of world religions.

The opening tour is bookended by a long argument between the Savage and World Controller Mustapha Mond (many of the characters are staggered with awkward mantles). Mustapha, one of the few allowed to read banned literature and study independently until he chose to give up the ability to think critically in favor of political power, acknowledges the trade-offs.

“…stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability,” he explains. “And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

Neither is the ending. (Spoiler alert!) Rather than a revolution, the subversives merely say their lines. Then, like Prospero, they’re banished to islands, where, along with others of their ilk, they’ll apparently form reading groups and have rap sessions, enjoying the intellectual freedoms they’d always desired.

It’s far from the frightening shore that Winston Smith washes up on, which ultimately for me is what makes Orwell’s the more powerful and lasting commentary.

Toward the End of Time by John Updike
I struggled with this book all summer, renewing it twice, and still wound up returning it to the library five days late. It’s not my favorite of Updike’s books, but still hard to put down because his writing is always so darn good.

I’d hoped to pair my review of this with The Age of Miracles; they share some striking similarities. Both take place in a near future, where life as we know it has been altered (by the slowing of the Earth’s rotation in Miracles; the devastation of the Sino-American War in Updike).

These are slight dystopias, though. Updike makes small attempts at building a post-apocalyptic world, where welders replace dollars, states replace the federal government, and every form of network – from communications to commerce – is broken down. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe still arrive every morning like clockwork.

The clockwork of nature – “time that churns the seasons” – is what Updike seems most concerned with here. The beauty of the book is the way it captures all those small changes that denote the turning of one season into the next. Along the way, his protagonist, Ben, experiences similar upticks and spirals in mood and health.

Here is Ben in winter:

“I had looked down once again into the dismal basement of life, where in ill-lit corners spiders brainlessly entrap segmented insects, consume them bit by bit, leave a fuzzy egg sac, and die. All those leggy spider corpses, like collapsed gyroscopes, that we see dangling from cobwebs – did they perish of starvation, having spun a web in vain, or of old age, in the natural course of things, after years of drawing upon Medicare and Social Security?”

And admiring the barn swallows of late spring:

“It happened today: the air was suddenly full of careening baby birds. They fly swervingly up and down, on the edge of control, like children first on a bicycle…In a mere two weeks the helpless and hideous babies have been fed into feathers and wingpower enough to be launched, blue-backed and roseate-bellied, as darting, dipping predators in their own right.”

Perhaps the reader is meant to take time with this book. It was certainly a pleasure to be reading it over summer in New Hampshire, as Updike describes the steady march of flora and fauna that appears between June and August in nearby eastern Massachusetts. It made me wish he’d dropped the flimsy post-war premise; the glorious peek into his journal of a man in his waning months was more than enough.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I’d never read Ephron’s novel, a famously (if barely) fictionalized account of the demise of her equally famous marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.

As I’ve mentioned, I admired Ephron’s essays as a journalism student. What I didn’t say was that I met her around that time and, as the saying goes, it’s way too soon to share that story. But, in recalling the opportunity – fledging journalist getting to see a favorite writer in person – it suddenly dawned on me that the fiasco that led to the implosion of the Ephron-Bernstein marriage was probably quite fresh and may have had something to do with her demeanor at the time. Which brought me to Heartburn.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the gossip columns, you’re familiar with the outlines of this novel. Rachel, writer of chatty cookbooks, marries famous journalist Mark, moves from cultural mecca Manhattan (where there are “six kinds of smoked salmon”) to the backwaters of D.C. They trade rat-a-tat-tat screwball comedy dialogue until she discovers him cheating while she’s pregnant with their second child. Pour in a bowl, mix with assorted erudite friends and shrinks, and watch as the farce rises.

If you’ve read any of Ephron’s essays, you quickly note that this is a novel in name only; it’s basically a journal of the break-up of her second marriage. But, her voice as an essayist is so strong, so funny and self-deprecating, you tend to go with it just to savor the way she makes a point.

Here is Rachel, for example, recounting the rationalization that enabled her to marry a man who’d already cheated on her while they were dating:

“I believed in change. I believed in metamorphosis. I believed in redemption. I believed in Mark. My marriage to him was as willful an act as I have ever committed; I married him against all the evidence. I married him believing that marriage doesn’t work, that love dies, that passion fades, and in so doing I became the kind of romantic only a cynic is truly capable of being. I see all that now. At the time, though, I saw nothing of the sort. I honestly believed that Mark had learned his lesson. Unfortunately, the lesson he learned wasn’t the one I had in mind: what he learned is that he could do anything, and in the end there was a chance I’d take him back.”

Mark manages to be just as persuasive in wooing her back to Washington a second time. A recipe for disaster, surely, but by this point, Rachel’s cynicism is fully baked.

Of her husband’s tearful entreaties to come home, she observes, “It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.”

Through her fictional proxy, Ephron also manages this dig at Bernstein’s writing: “He’d write it in that dumb Hemingway style he always reserved for his slice-of-life columns.”

Ouch! Never anger a writer.

What it lacks as a true novel (genuine characters with depth), it makes up for in brain-confectionary. It’s perfect for a summer afternoon hammock break, full of Ephron’s trademark wit and storytelling.

Social Marketology: Improve Your Social Media Processes and Get Customers to Stay Forever by Ric Dragon
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “Making Sense of Social Marketology,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

Summertime and the Reading is Easy

Are You My Mother?

Beauty and complexity at play in Allison Bechdel’s latest graphic novel “Are You My Mother?”

My transition to the east coast can take a few days, especially when little critters like to winter in your summer home, so I panicked at losing reading time during the first week of the month. I grabbed Allison Bechdel’s graphic novel at my country bookstore, thinking it would be a quick read, spotted a new book by favorite writer, Anne Lamott, then picked up several John Updike novels at the library, and boom! I was off.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of June’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought all of these books except the Barnes and Updike novel, which I borrowed from my local library. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

June
5 down, 23 to go!

REVIEWS

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son by Anne Lamott and Sam Lamott
At first glance, I thought this was a sequel to Operating Instructions: Annie shares the foibles of raising a teenager. Then my jaw dropped as I re-read the subtitle: It’s not about Sam as a kid, it’s Sam’s kid!

I felt like I’d just read the journal of Sam’s first year of life a few months ago. How old could he be? Nineteen, it turns out.

Like Operating Instructions, Some Assembly deals with the all-too-human aspects of coping with the unexpected, the mistakes you make along the way, the anger, the exhaustion, the kindness of strangers, and the miracle that is a loving family and friends.

Lamott shares co-authorship with her son, writing the throughline of her grandson’s birth and first year in journal entries. Sam provides his perspective on new fatherhood via transcribed phone interviews and emails, as does his girlfriend, Amy, who is Jax’s mother.

What’s lovely about this generous shifting of authorship is that you get to see a beautiful circle being completed, from the baby we first met in Operating Instructions to the stroppy teen of Blue Shoe to the bewildered, but all-in dad here. Through these books, memoir and fiction, we’ve had the rare opportunity to watch a family be made, grow and be remade.

“I watched Sam and Jax gaze at each other while Jax sucked on the bottle,” Lamott writes. “To have mothered this young father fills me with visceral feelings of awe, joy, and dread. Love, fierce pride, a new power, and faint anxiety flitted across Sam’s face: you love your kids way too much to ever feel safe again. I could see in his love that this baby had broken his turtle shell, the way Sam broke mine.”

Nevertheless, the unplanned pregnancy meant that everything from Sam finishing art college to whether Sam and Amy would remain a couple and where Amy (and ultimately baby Jax) would live – the Bay Area or back in Chicago – was up in the air.

Hard for a control-junkie to handle. I won’t spoil how, or whether, these threads get tied up by book’s end. Reading Anne Lamott so often feels like receiving a gift, her brave, honest, wise observations reminding us to have faith no matter how crazy life becomes: “Since Jax’s birth, my ideas about what would be best for everyone usually got in the way. Life is already an obstacle course, and when you’re adding your own impediments (thinking they’re helping), you really crazy it up. You should not bring more items and hurdles to the obstacle course.”

Exactly. Bring this book instead.

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Allison Bechdel
I hadn’t heard of Bechdel before seeing rave reviews for her latest graphic novel. I picked this up, thinking it would be a quick read. What I discovered, from its gorgeous presentation in hardcover to the complexity of Bechdel’s storytelling, stunned me.

Told in seven parts or chapters, Are You My Mother? places Bechdel’s relationship with her mother under a microscope, focusing on memories, analysis sessions, the views of major psychoanalysts on the parent-child relationship, Virginia Woolf and women writers, and the author’s present-day experiences with her mom. Pretty amazing territory for a comic.

Bechdel draws in black, grey, white and a maroon red. She uses this muted palette to perfect effect. Each chapter opens with a dream – vivid and powerfully emotional, these are drawn against a black background. As she delves into her own studies of analysis, the background is a pale maroon with frequent intrusions of white, as the character Allison highlights key points for us in the texts she’s reading. Memories are diffused with a soft grey, like Bechdel is shaking them free of cobwebs; flashbacks also feature sharp swaths of maroon.

Honest and thought-provoking, Bechdel takes this medium where few have, using it to investigate multiple points of view and points in time, complex theories of the mind, her childhood, her parents’ lives, and how women struggle (with their pasts and their family obligations) to become writers.

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
The 2011 Man Booker Prize winner is Barnes in full bloom, a masterfully compact showcase of prose, plotting and characters. The basic outline of schoolboy friendships and a youthful affair are quickly covered in part one; part two is where the nuances of those relationships, the harsh judgments of adolescence, the march of time, and the tricks of memory play out.

Don’t let the simple arc of part one dissuade you from going deeper, as Barnes does. This is a plot with more twists than a mystery like Gone Girl. Once you finish, you immediately want to re-read to place the truth in context.

One of the disarming aspects of this novel is that Barnes is so comfortable in his prose, it could be confused for a journal. But he’s clearly constructed a thoughtful narrator, looking back at an incident in his life and recognizing that there was more to it than he’d imagined.

His narrator, Tony Webster, observes, “The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

What starts as a tragic take on the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, girl-goes-out-with-boy’s-more-popular-friend plot morphs again and again as Tony digs through uncomfortable truths.

“My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being,” he notes.

“I had underestimated, or rather miscalculated: time was telling not against them, it was telling against me.”

What’s happened to the characters, especially the girl and Tony’s more popular friend, is sad and haunting, but the writing never is. Tony may be clueless, as Veronica describes him, but it’s his commitment to bringing the truth to light – even one that shines harshly on himself – that makes his journey so enthralling.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Flynn’s latest mystery turns the standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl narrative on its head, as well. This is a page-turner, intriguingly plotted, though the writing is utilitarian, moving characters from A to B and back again. And it would be nice if Flynn, like so many other procedural writers who fail to research their subjects, understood forensics and technology a bit better before allowing major plot points to hinge on them.

Strangely enough, for a writer who once worked at a national media outlet (Entertainment Weekly magazine), Flynn’s prose is dullest during the frequent scenes of media hordes following the scent of a juicy story, when Amy, an unhappily married woman, goes missing and her husband, Nick, becomes the prime suspect.

Part One is all set-up; Part Two reveals a major plot turn that the characters struggle to come to terms with all the way through Part Three. It’s impossible to say more without spoiling the entire story. A perfect beach read.

Bech: A Book by John Updike
A few summers ago, I read my way through Updike’s Rabbit series, which, in a way, inaugurated this year’s reading challenge. This trilogy – and Henry Bech – may be less well-known than Rabbit Angstrom, but the stories perfectly encapsulate the eras in which they were written.

Who is Henry Bech? Bech, like Rabbit, spends a good deal of time pondering the world and his place in it (and borrowing from his hero, James Joyce, in the process):

“Who was he? A Jew, a modern man, a writer, a bachelor, a loner, a loss. A con artist in the days of academic modernism undergoing a Victorian shudder. A white monkey hung far out on a spindly heaventree of stars. A fleck of dust condemned to know it is a fleck of dust. A mouse in a furnace. A smothered scream.”

Updike started publishing short stories about Bech in the mid-1960s, and this book features a collection of them up through 1970. He clearly enjoyed conjuring this alter-ego – a writer crippled by writer’s block and, later, by existential crisis – and subjecting him to the politics, culture, whims and neuroses of the time.

“Am I blocked?” Bech asks his mistress.  “I’d just thought of myself as a slow typist.”
“What do you do, hit the space bar once a day?”
“Ouch.”
“I’m sorry, that did sound bitchy. But it makes me sad, to see someone of your beautiful gifts just stagnating.”
“Maybe I have a beautiful gift for stagnation.”

Bech is fairly active for a stagnating man: This first volume sees him traveling behind the Iron Curtain on a cultural exchange, summering off the Cape as the youthquake takes hold, gutted by a visit to the fecund South, and having a confused fling in Swinging London.

It’s just that he’s not writing novels, after a brilliant debut and two politely received follow-ups, any longer. And his lack of legacy is making him panic.

“What was that sentence from Ulysses? Bloom and Stephen emerging from the house to urinate, suddenly looking up – The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit. Bech felt a sadness, a terror, that he had not written it. Not ever.”

Thankfully, Updike is a prolific writer, so I have two more Bech books to look forward to this summer, and a final short story in The Complete Henry Bech. Can’t wait.